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ENTERTAINMENT AND DISORDER! Arthur Branch is a fictional character—except on page one of the Post: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, JULY 26, 2007

WE KNOW WHAT SHE WROTE THAT SUMMER: Gag us! “Welcome back, Gail,” Joe Klein enthused, when Gail Collins resumed her Times column last week. Next week, we plan to review Collin’s newest entries, including her snide, textbook nonsense today. For now, though, let’s look in as her colleague, Patrick Healy, bows low to the jealous god, Spin.

In Wednesday’s paper, Healy pondered the overblown flap that emerged from Monday’s Democratic debate. Just for the record, here’s the text of the actual question which led to the week’s caterwauling:
QUESTION (7/23/07): In 1982, Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel, a trip that resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted ever since. In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?
Forgive us, but that’s not a brilliant question, despite this week’s excited cries about the public’s wondrous YouTubery. (More on Monday’s questions tomorrow.) Let’s state the obvious: No president would ever “be willing to meet separately, without precondition” with any of the five leaders in question. No, this isn’t the world’s biggest deal, a point we’ll make at least several more times. But Obama, forced to go first, failed to say this. Clinton, going second, didn’t. Again, it’s not the world’s biggest deal. But—once again, just for the record—here’s what Obama said:
OBAMA (continuing directly): I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them—which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration—is ridiculous.

(APPLAUSE)

Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward.
And I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them. We've been talking about Iraq—one of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they're going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses.

They have been acting irresponsibly up until this point. But if we tell them that we are not going to be a permanent occupying force, we are in a position to say that they are going to have to carry some weight, in terms of stabilizing the region.
We include the actual Q-and-A for a reason: If you read Healy’s long report, you never see what Obama was actually asked—or what he actually said in reply. Instead, Healy, paraphrasing creatively, gets busy suggesting that something in Clinton’s subsequent answer represented some sort of flip-flop. (You can tell he’s trying to make this suggestion because he keeps saying he isn’t.) But, for all young Healy’s Herculean labors, you never learn what Obama was specifically asked—or what he specifically answered in reply. Instead, you get handed perfect porridge like this:
HEALY (7/25/07): Within hours, Clinton advisers were arguing that Mr. Obama's response was too soft, while Obama advisers were making two points: That their candidate was not promising meetings but said only that he was willing to consider them, and that Mrs. Clinton's response mirrored the president's pattern of not meeting with leaders of ''rogue nations,'' as he calls them.
Obama “was not promising meetings but said only that he was willing to consider them?” As we’ve said, we don’t think this is the world’s biggest deal. But how can a reader judge that claim when the reporter has gone to such lengths to withhold what was actually said?

Collins does some creative non-quoting too, in today’s snide, superior column. But then, we thought her column-of-return was equally snide—the column Klein hurried to praise. And readers, we know what she wrote that summer—back when her snide, superior crowd was sending George Bush to the White House.

More on Collins’ columns to come. Regarding Healy, we’ll only say this: He serves an angry, jealous god—and this god roared out his pleasure on receipt of yesterday’s work.

(Tip to readers: Check your wallets when “reporters” withhold the quotations on which they expound at great length.)

ENTERTAINMENT AND DISORDER: We know, we know—it’s rude to say so. But if these people got any dumber, we’d have to water them out in the yard. Case in point: John Solomon’s profile of Fred Thompson’s legal career in this morning’s Washington Post. The profile adorns the top of the Post’s front page. For reasons only he can explain, Solomon starts it like this:
SOLOMON (7/26/07): Before he was elected as a tough-on-crime U.S. senator from Tennessee or played a New York prosecutor on TV's "Law and Order," Fred Dalton Thompson worked as a lawyer who argued against the government's authority to regulate drug paraphernalia or to search a boat packed with 14 tons of marijuana.
Solomon goes on to make modest points, at substantial length, about the shape of Thompson’s legal career. But can anyone answer the following question:

What on earth is “TV’s Law and Order” doing in that opening paragraph?

Note to Solomon, somewhere on Neptune: Law and Order is a fictional TV show; Thompson appears on the show as an actor. Nothing he does there has any relevance to his views on policy matters.

Let’s repeat. Law and Order is a fictional program. Thompson appears on the show as an actor. But Solomon puts the show in his opening paragraph—and as he continues, he furthers the childish conflation:
SOLOMON: During his 1994 Senate campaign, Thompson ran on a staunch anti-crime platform that called for keeping repeat offenders in prison, enforcing the death penalty, abolishing parole and getting tough on juvenile offenders. That image was burnished in recent years by his role as no-nonsense district attorney Arthur Branch on the popular "Law and Order" TV show.
It may be true that Thompson’s “image was burnished”—for those who can’t separate fact from fiction. But then, Solomon’s editors seem to be in that group. Just consider the large—and utterly mindless—graphic which accompanies Solomon’s article.

Yes, the nonsense you find at this link appears today in the Washington Post. In it, we get dueling head shots—of Thompson and Arthur Branch, a fictional TV character. And yes, we’re handed this silly overview—a tribute to the mindless culture which now rules America’s press corps:
WASHINGTON POST GRAPHIC (7/26/07): In the beginning, he just played himself, a young lawyer who made his name on the Senate Watergate committee and then practiced back home in Nashville. He went on to the Senate and then to a TV career playing Manhattan District Attorney Arthur Branch. A look at how Branch and Thompson compare:
A look at how Branch and Thompson compare! And then, below those dueling head shots, we actually find a three-part comparison. Only a millionaire press corps would ask such a question: In what ways is Branch (a fictional character) like Thompson (a White House contender)?

Maybe there’s a way to get dumber. But we’re not yet convinced.

Several points ought to be made about the Post’s childish conflation.

Straight from the campaign’s play-book: Endless talk about tough-talking Branch comes straight from the Thompson campaign’s play-book. Surely, every American journalist knows this. But the Post hands Thompson this dim-witted favor. In fairness, they resisted the impulse to mention Ronald Reagan. Many pundits don’t.

The childish love of fiction: In recent decades, the childish love of fictional structures has come to define press corps culture. Routinely, fact and logic give way to the pleasures of scripted drama when journos type their cohort’s preferred narratives. At the Post, ombudsman E. R. Shipp defined and criticized this unfortunate tendency—all the way back in March 2000. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/7/00. It was a truly brilliant piece.) But so what? Narrative continues to shape their work—and now, with Thompson, they conflate TV drama with matters drawn from real life.

More prejudicial than probative: As everyone knows, many voters really do have trouble separating TV fiction from real life. (Ask an actor in a soap opera.) You’d almost think that journalists would want to undercut this unfortunate tendency. But not the Post—they luvv our celebrity culture! And basically, they don’t give a sh*t about outcomes. As Margaret Carlson told Imus, long ago: For this cohort, campaign coverage is really about what’s entertaining and fun. (For the text of Carlson’s statement, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/16/03.)

But yes, it’s hard to get dumber than today’s front-pager. That said, let’s check it out again! Let’s look at Solomon’s opening paragraph. Then, let’s see how it would have appeared if Solomon’s editor weren’t the type that need to be watered n the yard—or at fatuous parties:
SOLOMON (ACTUAL OPENING PARAGRAPH): Before he was elected as a tough-on-crime U.S. senator from Tennessee or played a New York prosecutor on TV's "Law and Order," Fred Dalton Thompson worked as a lawyer who argued against the government's authority to regulate drug paraphernalia or to search a boat packed with 14 tons of marijuana.

SOLOMON (WITH AN EDITOR): Before he was elected as a tough-on-crime U.S. senator from Tennessee, Fred Dalton Thompson worked as a lawyer who argued against the government's authority to regulate drug paraphernalia or to search a boat packed with 14 tons of marijuana.
Duh! That edited piece would have been no great shakes. But why was Branch in paragraph one? Answer: Your press corps is fatuous, empty—dumb. For them, it’s about entertainment and sport. Carlson told Imus, way back.

SO RUGGED AND HANDSOME: And no, this part didn’t take long either. Here is the profile’s third paragraph:
SOLOMON: Thompson's work as a lawyer from the late 1970s to the early 1990s is one of the least explored aspects of a career that has taken the Tennessean with the imposing frame and deep voice from early fame as a Watergate lawyer to a Senate career, Hollywood stardom and now the brink of a campaign for president.
Man-crush elements to the side, “Hollywood stardom” is a bit of a stretch. But so what? The Post mentioned it. Quickly.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, make no mistake: The larger arc of Solomon’s piece is straight from Republican play-books too. Here are the article’s headlines:
FRONT PAGE: No Easy Verdict on Thompson The Lawyer
Cases Indicate Willingness to Defy GOP Orthodoxy

PAGE A4: As Trial Lawyer, Thompson Often Defied GOP Orthodoxy
George Bush is a different kind of Republican! That was the Bush’s campaign’s controlling sound-bite back in Campaign 2000. (That’s Pew talking, not us. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/20/02). It’s the presentation a candidate makes when his party’s policy views are disfavored. And it’s the framework which drives the Post’s piece about Arthur Branch—sorry; about Thompson—today.